Panic buying underscores South Africa's inequalities

23 March 2020 | Story James Lappeman. Photo Christopher Corneschi, Wikimedia. Read time 10 min.
Panic buying has left shelves empty around the world.
Panic buying has left shelves empty around the world.

Pictures of empty shelves and long queues have pervaded all forms of media in South Africa over the past few days. These scenes are not unlike those in other parts of the world as many consumers succumb to panic buying, in fear of running out of toilet paper – among other essential items.

Many authors have covered the reasons for panic buying and all behaviourists would agree that this is not a new or unexpected phenomenon. But the way it plays out in a country as economically unequal as South Africa accentuates the gap between the haves and have-nots.

Who wins and who loses from panic buying?

Of course, there is a first-mover advantage in getting to the front of the line. This behaviour is what often triggers a rush on the stores in the first place. But in a country that is not actually experiencing a famine or toilet paper shortage, the losers are those who cannot afford to stock up should the need arise.

While inequality exists everywhere, wealthier economies have a population base that is generally more capable of stocking up their homes when needed. This is also true of South African households in the upper middle class and at the top end.

The majority of consumers in South Africa are, however, unable to fill up a trolley in the best of times, let alone to finance a serious stockpile.

South Africa by numbers

While there are different ways to segment a population of 58 million people, the UCT Liberty Institute of Strategic Marketing has used the National Income Dynamics Survey to paint a picture of the South African consumer landscape. The scope of this article does not allow a full explanation of how this segmentation was derived, but a few phenomena are notable from the graphic.

UCT Liberty Institute of Strategic Marketing
UCT Liberty Institute of Strategic Marketing.

South Africa has roughly 58 million people living in 17 million households. About 1 000 households are added to this number every day. South Africa has a very high number of young people – almost half of its population is under 24.

If we divide the country by household income (that is, all the earners in the household combined) as shown in the graphic, then 7 million would fall into the category of middle class and above. That means 50 million people are living in households below the level needed to support a middle class lifestyle. These 50 million people are likely to be using public transport and public health care and living with very little financial margin.

As one goes into the ultra poor and survivor category, households regularly run out of food before the end of the month. A hallmark of living in this kind of household is a dependence on social grant income and a food shortage by the third week of the month. In addition, most poorer households live at least one taxi ride away from the closest supermarket and pay for extra seats on the taxi if purchasing more than a few bags of groceries. The one time of the year when stockpiling is more frequent is during the festive season (December) when carefully negotiated expenditure is made using savings from group schemes called stokvels.

When panic breaks out

Behavioural economists use many cognitive biases to explain why panic shopping occurs. Most commonly cited are phenomena like loss aversion, the bandwagon effect and probability neglect. These reactions to the initial run on essential groceries create a panic contagion that ignores logic. There is no food or toilet paper shortage and shopping is allowed to continue during this kind of state of emergency. Nonetheless, the week of 16-20 March 2020, saw a massive panic shopping spree marked by daily shortages in many categories.

Times of crisis accentuate the gap between the privileged and the rest. When the stock market dips, the wealthy have reserves to buy more shares and multiply their wealth in the long run. When a health crisis hits, the wealthy have access to medicine and private health care and can often navigate around work restrictions.

The poor, however, are not as fortunate. Even in the UK, the vulnerable are the losers as panic buying surged in early March. Workers on short term contract and freelancers globally are experiencing financial setbacks as this kind of work dries up. Germany has pledged 40 billion euros in aid to freelancers.

South Africa has freelancers in multiple industries but also the informal economy (and millions of households) hinging on micro enterprises like street vendors, spaza shops and taverns. These enterprises (many based on commuter populations and school children as their markets) are not registered businesses and unlikely to get any financial relief from the government. This form of enterprise does not have a “work from home” option as proposed by employment experts. These features of the informal sector are the same globally.

The social media posts comparing wealthy consumers lining up outside wholesalers and the poor lining up to catch a taxi home are anecdotal, but also somewhat symbolic of the realities in South Africa. The pictures of panic buying don’t reflect the average South African. They depict the average wealthy South African.

Many in the middle class may say they too are under financial pressure. This is true. But they are still in the privileged minority.

What does this mean?

The COVID-19 pandemic will eventually pass, as have other flu pandemics in centuries gone by. The fact that we were able to monitor this one globally in real time is a possible turning point for the way such events are handled in the future.

The exact outcome of the pandemic in terms of its duration, fatalities and impact on the South African economy will eventually unfold.

In the meantime, the country is once again faced with the reality that it has a long way to go before the edges of inequality soften and the ‘average’ household may also participate in the next spree of panic buying – whenever that may be.

James Lappeman, Head of Projects, UCT Liberty Institute of Strategic Marketing, University of Cape Town.

This article was published in The Conversation, a collaboration between editors and academics to provide informed news analysis and commentary. Its content is free to read and republish under Creative Commons; media who would like to republish this article should do so directly from its appearance on The Conversation, using the button in the right-hand column of the webpage. UCT academics who would like to write for The Conversation should register with them; you are also welcome to find out more from

For licensing information please visit the source website.

Coronavirus Disease 2019 updates

COVID-19 is a global pandemic that caused President Cyril Ramaphosa to declare a national disaster in South Africa on 15 March and implement a national lockdown from 26 March.

UCT is taking the threat of infection in our university community extremely seriously, and this page will be updated regularly with the latest COVID-19 information.

Campus updates

  •  Information
  •  Normal
  •  Caution
  •  Alert

Daily updates

Friday, 5 February 14:20, 5 February 2021
Monday, 4 January 16:50, 4 January 2021
Friday, 18 December 11:30, 18 December 2020
Thursday, 19 November 09:30, 19 November 2020
Friday, 13 November 12:40, 13 November 2020
Friday, 16 October 10:05, 16 October 2020
Wednesday, 14 October 12:50, 14 October 2020
Tuesday, 22 September 14:10, 22 September 2020
Friday, 11 September 10:05, 11 September 2020
Monday, 31 August 12:20, 31 August 2020
Wednesday, 12 August 10:20, 12 August 2020
Friday, 7 August 11:24, 7 August 2020
Thursday, 6 August 18:26, 6 August 2020
Monday, 27 July 14:00, 27 July 2020
Wednesday, 15 July 09:30, 15 July 2020
Monday, 13 July 14:25, 13 July 2020
Monday, 6 July 16:20, 6 July 2020
Thursday, 25 June 10:15, 25 June 2020
Tuesday, 23 June 12:30, 23 June 2020
Thursday, 18 June 17:35, 18 June 2020
Wednesday, 17 June 10:45, 17 June 2020
Tuesday, 2 June 12:20, 2 June 2020
Friday, 29 May 09:25, 29 May 2020
Monday, 25 May 14:00, 25 May 2020
Thursday, 21 May 12:00, 21 May 2020
Wednesday, 6 May 10:00, 6 May 2020
Tuesday, 5 May 17:05, 5 May 2020
Thursday, 30 April 17:10, 30 April 2020
Tuesday, 28 April 10:30, 28 April 2020
Friday, 24 April 09:35, 24 April 2020
Thursday, 23 April 17:00, 23 April 2020
Wednesday, 22 April 14:25, 22 April 2020
Monday, 20 April 17:45, 20 April 2020
Friday, 17 April 12:30, 17 April 2020
Thursday, 16 April 09:45, 16 April 2020
Tuesday, 14 April 11:30, 14 April 2020
Thursday, 9 April 09:00, 9 April 2020
Wednesday, 8 April 15:40, 8 April 2020
Wednesday, 1 April 15:50, 1 April 2020
Friday, 27 March 11:40, 27 March 2020
Thursday, 26 March 18:30, 26 March 2020
Tuesday, 24 March 15:40, 24 March 2020
Monday, 23 March 15:40, 23 March 2020
Friday, 20 March 16:00, 20 March 2020
Thursday, 19 March 09:15, 19 March 2020
Wednesday, 18 March 16:00, 18 March 2020
Tuesday, 17 March 12:50, 17 March 2020
Monday, 16 March 17:15, 16 March 2020

Campus communications

New SRC and other updates 16:44, 4 November 2020
Virtual graduation ceremonies 13:30, 21 October 2020
Online staff assembly and other updates 15:09, 30 September 2020
Fee adjustments and other updates 15:21, 16 September 2020
Call for proposals: TLC2020 10:15, 26 August 2020
SAULM survey and other updates 15:30, 5 August 2020
COVID-19 cases and other updates 15:26, 5 August 2020
New UCT Council and other updates 15:12, 15 July 2020
Upcoming UCT virtual events 09:30, 15 July 2020
Pre-paid data for UCT students 14:25, 22 April 2020
Update for postgraduate students 12:55, 20 April 2020
UCT Human Resources and COVID-19 16:05, 19 March 2020
UCT confirms second COVID-19 case 09:15, 19 March 2020
Update on UCT COVID-19 response 13:50, 11 March 2020
Update on COVID-19 17:37, 6 March 2020


Video messages from the Department of Medicine

Getting credible, evidence-based, accessible information and recommendations relating to COVID-19

The Department of Medicine at the University of Cape Town and Groote Schuur Hospital, are producing educational video material for use on digital platforms and in multiple languages. The information contained in these videos is authenticated and endorsed by the team of experts based in the Department of Medicine. Many of the recommendations are based on current best evidence and are aligned to provincial, national and international guidelines. For more information on UCT’s Department of Medicine, please visit the website.

To watch more videos like these, visit the Department of Medicine’s YouTube channel.

Useful information from UCT

External resources

News and opinions

Statements and media releases

Media releases

Read more  

Statements from Government


In an email to the UCT community, Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng said:
“COVID-19, caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2, is a rapidly changing epidemic. [...] Information [...] will be updated as and when new information becomes available.”


We are continuing to monitor the situation and we will be updating the UCT community regularly – as and when there are further updates. If you are concerned or need more information, students can contact the Student Wellness Service on 021 650 5620 or 021 650 1271 (after hours), while staff can contact 021 650 5685.